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Countering Radicals through Internet and

Electronic Media

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, January 28, 2010

Almost three decades ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia got together with finances and technology to mount the jihad against the Soviet Union. Pakistan volunteered to play as the host to this unholy jihad. It gave birth to a certain jihadist narrative. Now all the three countries as well as the United Nations are desperately trying to deal with the aftermath of that jihad i.e. the al Qaeda led network of Islamist networks, who have developed a narrative that projects Muslims as the victims of the US-led western imperialism, which attacks the west for “discriminating against Palestinians by favoring Israelis, for instance. This propagation also attacks injustices and socio-economic deprivations in societies such as Pakistan and Afghanistan to enlist financial and manpower support. And this is the challenge that the civilized world faces today. 

An international conference titled “Use of Internet to Counter the Appeal of Extremist Violence “ held at the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the German foreign ministry, took up the same issue this week (24-26 January 2011) , and tried to find answers and panaceas to the radical’s narrative, which are circulating and resonating through the internet as well as the electronic media in various forms. 

“The best way to organize is without an organization...an ideological front survives any security arrangements.”, says Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, one of the most prominent strategists and ideologues of violent extremism. This refers to the use of the Internet plays as central role tool for propagation and recruitment. 

According to the background paper that Dr. Omar Ashour, Director of the Middle East Studies Program in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK), wrote for the conference, as law enforcement action and military pressure restrict the operational activity of violent extremist groups, they must rely more and more on the Internet to reach their audience of actual or potential supporters. The Internet has become a means for their survival and their only hope for expansion. There is good reason therefore to focus on how to reverse the role of the Internet and other media so as to counter-violent extremist narratives. 

Ashour argues that just as the Internet plays a key role in recruitment to violence, so too can it play a key role in promoting a counter-narrative and in facilitating other counter-radicalization efforts. 

This is what the participants of the conference at the Naif Arab University debated for three days and offered a range of recipes for how to employ the internet as well as the electronic media to counter what radical Islamists would like their people as well as the common Muslims to believe. The internet, most participants, agreed offers the first inter-active contact for potential terrorists and radicals. Once they find it appealing, they express their interest, followed by recruitment, observation, and then actual execution of missions. 

Most participants agreed on the need that the message – the counter-narrative – has to be grounded in realities of the common man, and that the messenger i.e. media, and other media must be credible and not untainted as a partisan party, 

The conference also looked at the reasons behind the success of the extremist narrative not only within the Muslim world but also elsewhere. A number of problems such as economic deprivations, social injustice, political instability, denial of fundamental liberties were quoted as some of the factors that help and fuel the extremist narrative. 

The conference also looked into why young people become radicalized even in the west. Is it a crisis of identity, or exclusion by the local community, or lack of their own ability to integrate in the communities they live in? We need a story that counters these factors being used to propagate and practice violence but the story, scholars opined, must also take into account the causes that help extremists prey on young, disenchanted people even in the liberal western countries. 

Most of the participants, particularly those from within the Muslim countries, also out rightly rejected Al-Qaeda and its non-Arab affiliates as non-Muslims. Islam by no means asks for or justifies killing of innocent people. These people (extremists) have only tarnished the image of Islam. They do not represent the Muslim world at all. That is why, argued these scholars, even words such as jihad must not be attributed because this is pure violence and not jihad. 

Scholars from Lebanon, the UK, USA, Germany, Pakistan, Holland, Australia and Afghanistan inter alia, pointed out that while several grievances within the Muslim world (such as the Palestinian issue or invasion of Iraq) may be difficult to address in the short term, the weaknesses within the Islamist radicals led by Al Qaeda can still be exploited by questioning the modus of violence these organizations adopt, and the radical views they project and propagate. Are the advocates and practitioners of violence and militant? 

Deradicalistion does not mean using the electronic messaging alone; it is about engaging with potential prey to the radicals; the youth and the under-privileged majority of the masses. A Saudi scholar called the Internet as an Open University, a means of communication and teaching, even teaching how to produce bombs. Unchecked uses of internet – public Net Cafes – are also a source of spreading terror and extremist views, he said. 

Deconstructing the extremists’ narrative would be possible only by addressing some of the pressing ground realities – access to good universal education, justice. Some participants also pointed out that continued dialogue between the Muslim and Non-Muslim would also be critical for successfully developing the counter-narrative. For this, all stake-holders need to address issues such as deep divisions within Europe like 

- Migration polices, 
- How to engage with the Muslims of Europe, 
- Should we work with non-violent Islamic organizations? 
- How to engage with those radiating a radical view. How to integrate Muslims, 
- The burqa controversy in some European countries

Representatives from the Muslim countries in particular pointed to the US actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and its unquestioned support for Israel as a big source of oxygen for the al Qaeda-led radical narrative. These grievances, as seen by the majority of Muslims, need to be addressed to deny the jihadist outfits the opportunity to exploit these conditions for enlisting more support within the Muslim fraternity.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk